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Bad News for the Pepsi Generation

Can Coca-Cola kill you?

Not exactly, but according to a new study by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health, it and other sugar-sweetened beverages are linked to 184,000 deaths globally each year.

The study, presented at an American Heart Association meeting in March, came just days after a New York State Supreme Court judge struck down Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s controversial proposal to ban sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces at NYC restaurants, theaters and food carts. Bloomberg unapologetically defended the initiative as a way to “do what’s right to save lives,” and had envisioned the ban spreading to cities around the globe. The judge called it “arbitrary and capricious” and stopped it in its tracks the day before it was to take effect. And many disgruntled Big Gulp lovers have pointed to similar proposals as over-reaching “Nanny State” intrusiveness, centered around ideology, rather than fact.

The Harvard Study could render that a hard argument to make.

“I hope that seeing the actual number of deaths will give policy makers who are interested in making a change in this area some ammunition to use,” lead author Gitanjali Singh, Ph.D., recently told me.

She and her team spent five years scouring data on global sugary drink consumption, compiling a vast data set covering 720,000 people in 54 countries. (The top pop consumer was Mexico. The bottom was Japan.). They then compiled mortality data from the 2010 Global Burden of Diseases Study and ran the numbers through a complex statistical analysis. The bottom line: 133,000 diabetes deaths, 44,000 deaths from cardiovascular diseases, and 6,000 cancer deaths were linked to sugary drink consumption. In all, 25,000 American deaths annually are linked to sugary drink consumption, it found. (In a nutshell, sucking down too many nutrient-free, sugar-laden drinks makes people fat, and obesity increases disease risk.)

Will such numbers sway policy makers to take action, and convince the public not to fight it?

If history is any indication, it could take a very very long time.

We now know that worldwide, tobacco causes 5 million deaths per year. But it was not so long ago that soldiers were issued free cigarettes, and cigarette ads featured endorsements from doctors, dentists, and babies. Even after the U.S. Surgeon General released a 1964 report based on more than 7,000 scientific studies linking smoking with cancer and other diseases, the ultra-cool Marlboro Man and the cartoonish Joe Camel would be household names for decades. (One 1991 study found that Joe Camel was more recognizable among 5 and 6 year olds than Mickey Mouse). Only in the past decade, as the gruesome consequences of smoking have become scientifically indisputable, have lawmakers had success passing meaningful legislation to dissuade their consumption.

Not surprisingly, the American Beverage Association has called the Harvard Study “more about sensationalism than science” and other researchers have pointed out some valid shortfalls in the study (it is an epidemiological trial, not a randomized controlled trial, so it cannot prove “cause.”)

I suspect that someday, we will look back on today’s epidemic of chubby 10-year-olds sucking down supersized sodas, with the same “What were we thinking?” bewilderment we have when we remember that it was once common for people to smoke in their hospital beds.

But until then, brave politicians like Bloomberg will have their work cut out for them.

And his critics can continue to have a 50-oz Double Gulp and a smile.

Lisa Marshall is a freelance health and medical science writer in Lyons, Colo. Connect at www.lisaannmarshall.com.

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